A lot of us probably think that improvement always comes down to better compositions, better processing, better settings, better light, better scenes, but I’ve always been a firm believer that it’s always the simpler, smaller things that make the biggest difference. Over time I have naturally developed a process that begins when planning where I will go to take a photo and continues all the way until posting the photo.
These simple techniques will eventually help you to have a stronger body of work and a more impressive portfolio to help you stand out amongst the masses. While most of us are usually looking for quick fixes, those that have the patience to go the longer route will be rewarded far greater in the end.
One of the best things that happened to my photography was David Thompson taking me under his wing. There are several photographers I look up to and seek input and feedback from, but David is who I consider my mentor and who helps me on a daily basis. I’m not talking about someone you can show an image to in order to receive a pat on the back and some encouragement to keep going forward, I’m talking about finding someone you admire and trust, that cares enough about your work to pick it apart and tell you everything that is wrong with it.
Before I met David, I thought I knew a lot and thought I was pretty good, because I wasn’t seeing much I could improve on. Having David’s eyes was a huge awakening for me because he could see everything I was blind to and opened my own eyes to what I needed to work and improve on. I love David’s work so I trust his opinions and his criticism enough to follow it even if I do not quite understand it or grasp it at the time. I know he will never lead me down the wrong path or criticize my work merely out of jealousy or to put me down. This is extremely important to consider when seeking for a mentor.
(Fun Fact: I now call David “Morpheus” for waking me up to reality and opening my eyes)
Always remain a student. Even the best photographers out there look at other photographers’ work on a consistent basis to receive inspiration. I got a lot more out of seeing other photography when I began to study it and dissect it. By looking at photographs I liked for more than just 30 seconds.
I have spent hours and hours looking at images from photographers I look up to like David Thompson, Alex Noriega, and Marc Adamus. I think about things like “what was going through their mind when they were choosing this composition? Why this? Why that? What is the light like? Why these colors? How do these choices they made help the scene to be more powerful? How can I put these things into practice?”
All the great artists, musicians, speakers, teachers, never stopped studying other people’s work. If you want to get better at writing, then you need to be an avid reader. Musicians are always listening to other artists’ music. Film directors are always watching movies. It’s not just about getting inspired and learning things we could do either. We can also learn what we should avoid and what not to do by analyzing the mistakes of others. There are certain photographers whose work I do not like at all that I occasionally refer to in order to stay on the right track and make sure I am still not guilty of the same mistakes.
I am always willing to help others any way I can to improve their photography. Besides it being extremely important to give back after someone else has helped you, it is also a great learning tool.
While explaining things to others and answering their questions, I have come to better understand my own techniques and theories. I have a greater comprehension of principles in photography as they have become clearer and more basic for myself. Learning how to explain things simply will help you understand them on a much deeper level.
I see a lot of photographers posting a processed image that they took just the day before, or even that same morning, or sometimes even that same evening! I get it, you saw something awesome, you are excited, and you can’t wait to share it. And now you probably even have that built-in wifi feature so you can send it straight to your phone and post almost immediately!
However, I’ve learned that this doesn’t really make much sense or carry much logic. It is fueled alone by the thrill that comes from getting it up immediately and watching those likes roll in as soon as possible. When you shoot an image, no one else knows what you have just done besides you, so no one is expecting to see it or is even worrying about it until it becomes known. There is no real pressure to get it out there, only the mental, illusional pressure you create for yourself.
My own process tends to be as follows:
I arrive home from a trip, I decompress, spend time with family, eat lots of good food, and just relax. After a few days, I will begin to upload the files and take a look at the images. I will select all of the images that look like they have some potential and get together a log of what I will be editing.
I start out processing the basic stuff first, to get back into the groove. The images that don’t require blending, stitching, or any technical stuff. Then I move on to the images that are a little more complicated, and then by the time I get to the really difficult, time-consuming ones, I am warmed up and in the groove. I usually will not process more than 1-3 images in a day, to avoid burning myself out.
As I edit my images I begin uploading them into a private gallery, so I can see them together as a whole and compare them to each other. Once I have finished editing all of the images, I let them sit for a week or so.
I then go through and look at them all with fresh eyes, I usually notice quite a bit of adjustments and tweaks that will need to be made, then it’s back to the digital darkroom. I make the adjustments and upload the new files to the gallery.
Getting a Second Opinion
By now two weeks or more have already passed, I’ve probably looked at a lot of other photography and have gained some inspiration. I go through the photos and make a few more basic tweaks. Once I am not seeing anything else I can tweak or adjust to improve them, I send them over to David, my mentor.
David gets back to me with a big list of changes, tells me to get rid of a few of them, and some other great insight. Back to the digital darkroom to make all of David’s changes (that I agree with) and I take a few images out of the gallery that just aren’t as strong as the rest. After the changes have been made, I send the gallery link over to a few more photographers to get some more opinions.
I take their CC with a grain of salt and make some more tweaks. Then I let the images sit for another month or so and continue to look over them daily on my own. Usually, I will make a few more adjustments or take some more images out altogether that should never be seen by the general public. By now 2-3 months have passed by since the images were shot, I have probably just got back from another trip somewhere else, I have let these images marinate. I finally begin to release the images that I am still feeling good about and haven’t gotten tired of.
Before, when I used to just shoot, process, and post, all within 24 hours or so, what would usually happen was I would go back and look at the image a week or so later and completely hate it and regret having posted it at all. It is also not wise to release an image before you have received some CC and feedback on it by another artist so that you can see it with a different pair of eyes and make some more effective tweaks to improve it.
When I first began shooting, I didn’t really know where to start. I just tried a bit of everything: urban, lifestyle, architecture, landscape, desert, mountains, coast, whatever. I then began to narrow down my subjects by what I was enjoying the most and then decided I wanted to solely shoot landscape.
After spending a lot of time shooting landscape, I realized I connect deepest with the coast, mountains, and forests, so these are the scenes I seek out the most. I occasionally will shoot waterfalls or the desert, but it is very hard for me personally to connect with these things and find a scene that really moves me in a way that makes me want to capture it with my camera. My trips are now based around what I love shooting, which means I am more inspired and usually come home with more images to show for my time spent traveling.
When I shoot what I love I feel my images evoke more emotion and become more powerful. When your experience is genuine it can be felt through your photograph, otherwise, it will just be empty.
Learn to process your images like Eric Bennett in his processing video Fleeing Light.